The latest from my little column over at the SFist:

San Francisco gold rush streets

“Not Even Jackassable”

We perused the recent SFist post about the pitiable state of San Francisco’s streets with a certain sense of nostalgia for the good ol’ days. You know, the days before this newfangled “asphalt paving” even entered the scene.

In the Year of the Gold Rush (1849-50ish), the city’s population exploded from a cozy 500 citizens to almost 100 thousand — and not a single one of those gold-crazed invaders wasted a second thinking the state of the village’s streets.

See, the streets in the good ol’ days were good ol’ dirt. And when the rainy season arrived, the torrent of horse, foot and cart traffic tearing through town trampled that sandy earth into a boggy quagmire.

How bad was it? Bad. Not to mention deep. Horses, mules, and countless drunken souls staggering out of saloons were sucked down into the street muck and drowned. This situation entered into legend, as historian Herbert Asbury writes, when “the mud at Clay and Kearny streets, in the heart of town, at length became so deep and thick that a wag posted this sign:


In a vain attempt to ameliorate the situation, the city fathers (such as they were) dumped in piles of brush and tree branches, but any object that entered the muck slowly sank from sight and vanished forever.

Though the construction boom had caused the price of wood to skyrocket, streets constructed from planks eventually began to appear. This was an improvement over mud, but wooden streets — though reducing the risk of drowning (!) — were slippery when wet, prone to break under horses’ hooves, and (on the rare occasions when they were dry) quite flammable. San Francisco’s six major Gold Rush-era fires (1849 to 1853) sent miles of costly plank streets up in smoke.

That sixth fire must have been the charm for the city fathers. In 1854 that the miracle of the paved street arrived, first appearing on the block of Kearny Street between Clay and Washington, where City Hall (originally the Jenny Lind Theatre) once stood. Whew!

Bicycle over and pay your respects … but watch the potholes.